Ever since Star Wars: A New Hope debuted in 1977, the world has gone nuts for everything Star Wars. The film series has grossed over $10B globally, second only to the Marvel Comics Universe that has raked-in $22B. All other cinematic franchises lag behind Star Wars, including Harry Potter, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Transformers, Toy Story, Shrek, and The Fast & Furious. Star Wars is a box-office champion for the ages. A new Star Wars movie is a global event that spans across every demographic, geography, and culture.
So, why are all the films basically unwatchable?
The 11 films in the Star Wars Universe portray the characters and places in the ‘galaxy far, far away’ as stupidly idiotic, one-dimensional, and utterly meaningless. Actions have no consequences. Death is a mild distraction. Skills, even those mystically uncertain and unquantifiable, are gained or lost without care. Distance, speed, mass, power, gravity, momentum are ignored in favour of the plot, scene, or narrative. Culture is the shape of your head or what you eat. Age is explained away when convenient. Character motivations routinely have meaningless inner-conflicts, which are resolved and forgotten moments later.
But then, why do fans so deeply love Star Wars? Why do we accept the in-your-face buffoonery that is ingrained in every Star Wars film? Why is the cannon source material developed in novels, comics, animated series, and TV shows thrown out when it comes to the films? Why is the audience treated with such contempt?
“In time, the suffering of your people will persuade you to see our point of view.”
– Nute Gunray
The answer to why Star Wars fans tolerate the films, even though they are terrible, is simple. The concept of a galaxy with thousands of planets and beings living out their existence in mortal struggle against a tyrannical enemy, while an unseen magical energy courses through everything and is able to be manipulated for good or evil purposes, with incredible results, is amazing. That is a damned good story!
The concept of the Star Wars Universe is so obvious and pedestrian that it’s a bit laughable on the face of it. Taken together, however, these concepts have struck deep into the hearts of millions of people who have developed a lasting relationship with the story, the places, and the characters.
Personally, I want to explore all of the Star Wars Universe because I find it fascinating. That’s odd because the SWU isn’t a real thing, it’s just entertainment, right? Nope, not at all. The SWU is fictional, and it is entertaining, but it also has a plausible structure and semi-reality to it. For comparison, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are so far mainly about exceptional characters. There are other elements like the tesseract, and Mjölnir, and whatever is going on with the Galactus. Indeed, the MCU has depth, but that depth hasn’t been teased or explored in such detail in film as in the SWU. There are no gods or demi-gods in the SWU. I think people relate to Luke Skywalker much closer than they do to Loki, for instance.
Star Wars began with a terrible movie that makes awful mistakes with plot and exposition and narrative. A New Hope breaks many of the rules it sets – sometimes minutes later in screen time and narrative time. (So glad we established early-on that Stormtroopers have precise aim when shooting.) The dialog is horrible. Indeed, the visual effects for 1977 were incredible, but except for improving vast galactic and planetary-life scenes in lager films, the original effects formula hasn’t evolved all that much since A New Hope.
SWU fans love the promise of what this galaxy of characters can offer; we accept the films as they are, complain about them, and wait excitedly for the next one. Despite Rian Johnson, Ron Howard, and Richard Marquand’s failed efforts to undo, re-make, or ‘explore the characters’ in their directorial turns at Star Wars films, the fans keep coming back time and again. (Yes, I believe Return of the Jedi was an unforgivable failure at filmmaking.)
Comics, graphic novels, novels, TV shows, YouTube channels, podcasts, conventions, cosplay, and an avalanche of merchandise were born because of that one great idea – that good and evil should be balanced somehow far away in space.
And so it goes. The painful realization that nothing in the SWU makes any damn sense at all; not even the underlying story that A New Hope and every other Star Wars movie is built upon. Yet, fans will come back again and again because the premise is just that good.
You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!
– Obi-Wan Kenobi
Episodes IV, V, and VI introduced the world to Star Wars. These films spurred entire industries. Industrial Light and Magic was born. Big things happened creatively with books, comics, and TV. People scrambled to produce the details for this far away galaxy. [Note: This officially ended when Disney acquired Lucasfilm and boxed up the Expanded Universe into Star Wars Legends, then threw it away as non-cannon. That’s another story for another day.]
From land-speeders to Jawas to Ewoks, the SWU was gradually being populated in film. Then it stopped for 16 years. Except for the excellent animated Clone Wars TV series that debuted in 2008, it was lights-out for Star Wars films. This incredible universe loved by millions went to sleep for almost two decades and then emerged with The Phantom Menace. That’s when the real troubles for Star Wars fandom started.
Back in Episode V, Yoda was introduced and became a sensation. I can remember Yoda being everywhere. I had a Yoda lunchbox like millions of kids did. Yoda had about 13 minutes of screen time in The Empire Strikes Back, then, since he dies in that film, and only his Force ghost appears in Return of the Jedi for about four minutes, the character effectively ended. Yoda overtook the SWU and became a global cultural phenomenon with his odd speaking, diminutive size, and powerful mind. That is an incredible impact for 17 minutes of screen time for a 900-year-old green puppet.
So, when the Prequel films were announced, it was entirely reasonable to think Yoda would have a big part in the storytelling of the Force and the Jedi and what was going on with Palpatine’s backstory. Yeah, no. Instead, we got four minutes of Yoda mostly sitting on a pillow and 18 minutes of Jar Jar Binks.
After watching Episode I, it was clear to most Star Wars fans something was very wrong in the SWU. A movie about taxes and politics and Machiavellian-style manipulation plots. Ugh. Just writing that sentence made me sad. The Prequel films were an absolute catastrophe for Star Wars. Those films were so bad that 21 years later, people still make prequel memes every day.
“Much to learn, you still have.”
Episode II could have been ‘fixed,’ and I suppose it was to some extent, since Jar Jar’s screen time shrank considerably to about two minutes, while Yoda got about ten minutes and demonstrated his legendary Jedi fighting skills. Yet, Count Dooku had the power to simply flick his wrist to send a gigantic machine part tumbling towards Obi-Wan, while Yoda needed all his strength to stop it from falling, thus allowing Dooku to escape. The great and powerful Yoda fell victim to bad writing and an intractable plot hole – someone has to die if Yoda and Dooku fight, or maybe Yoda betrays his resolve and allows the bad guy to escape.
Exposition was alway a problem from the beginning. George Lucas is terrible actually writing his ideas into a script. He has a brilliant imagination and can excel at storytelling – except on film. He wanted to produce soft sci-fi, not the harsh, technical approach like in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He envisioned films for children that were approachable and filled with fantasy.
“Star Wars has more to do with disclaiming science than anything else. There are very elaborate Rube Goldberg explanations for things. It’s a totally different galaxy with a totally different way of thinking. It’s not based on science, which bogs you down. I don’t want the movie to be about anything that would happen or be real. I wanted to tell a fantasy story.”
– George Lucas (April 1977)
History proved that his instinct was perfect, that a world filled with softer characters would be timeless; that the generic techno-focused sci-fi film isn’t special. As imagined, the technical sci-fi film is everywhere to this day. Filmmakers get all goose-bumpy thinking of how to build the most immense spaceship. One that travels ages and ages on autopilot to some mysterious cosmic destination, only to kill off most of the crew in 45 minutes of screen time, ending with the unpretentious, weakest person barely still alive and leaving a plot hole large enough for a comet to whiz through. Lucas didn’t want that, but that’s what he partially delivered. He gave us approachable sci-fi, but also 40 years of huge plot holes.
Even though the dialog was awful and the interpersonal relationships never established that the characters deeply loved and cared for each other (perhaps Chewy and Han are the exceptions), the visuals were good. Well, actually, not really *that* good. But fair. Star Wars broke early ground for visual effects, winning Oscars in that category in 1978, 1981, and 1984 for Episodes IV, V, and VI. After that initial run, never again.
I tend to think it was not because the technical approaches were dated; instead, it was the application on film that lacked. The same lightsaber glow, sound, and motion. The same blaster whiz and boom. Generic space stuff scenes used as cut-way-fades between acts. What was initially innovative became routine. In 1999 we got bullet time with the Matrix, a much different thing than a rotoscoped lightsaber.
The jump to hyperspace was new and fun, the tracking of lightsabers and blasters was great, but scenes of Stormtroopers in cramped hallways which are apparently located within unimaginably massive spaceships showed us the limitations of the filmmakers’ imagination. Then in Episode III we got some new visuals. Revenge of the Sith is the probably the best of the Prequels but still it’s a laughable farce of storytelling and filmmaking.
With Episode I: The Phantom Menace, we were first introduced to ‘modern’ CGI. Where live characters could reasonably be set in computer generated scenes, as well as the opposite; CGI characters could be set into live scenes – and that is why we have Jar Jar Binks. Glowing lightsabers and blaster beams were still there, but Episode I was a technical leap forward. Maybe Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park sums it up the use of CGI in the Prequels the best.
“[Filmmakers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
– Dr. Ian Malcolm
The Jar Jar disaster should have been a warning sign. Maybe it was but just not to the people that mattered. Fully CGI characters have a place in cinema, but fully CGI scenes and characters in 1999 weren’t a good idea. Take this scene with Rune Haako and Viceroy Nute Gunray, where the entire scene around them is CGI and adds nothing to the story. We had already seen wide shots of the city and the droids.
You can see the visuals are much better in Episode III. Lighting and reflection were used more skillfully, and where it made sense for the story. This is a shot of Padme’s ship just before leaving for Mustafar. It’s a great shot that’s needed to set up the scene and looks fabulous. But then we have “the stowaway” trope which is convenient to get Obi-Wan to where Anakin will be for the big showdown because we already know that Darth Vader is a mangled mess because of his fight with Obi-Wan.
It wasn’t until the sixth movie, Revenge of the Sith, that the CGI visuals improved to generally meet audience expectations, even though the awards had passed-over Star Wars forever by this time. The film was still terrible. Obi-Wan and General Grievous were both well done and captivating in the film (although Grievous’s purpose was ridiculous); the other main characters were unlikeable and creepy. Anakin was portrayed with an explosive temper, untrustworthy, and easily manipulated. After 10 years of intense Jedi training, we are asked to believe that it only took a dream and a few short meetings for Palpatine to divert his faith and allegiance.
However, the viewing experience was better. The too-short Battle of Kashyyyk on the Wookiee homeworld had a scary and visceral feeling like real life and death stakes were at hand. No battle so far in five films seemed as gritty. Even though it was a high point in the Prequel Trilogy, someone still had to add a silly Tarzan call when two Wookiees swung into battle.
I could go on for another 20,000 words about how silly the Prequel Trilogy was. But then I’d get tired before mentioning that the Sequel Trilogy literally killed-off the Skywalker timeline and destroyed the Star Wars brand and reputation until the beloved Mandalorian series dropped in 2019. The films are so bad, so deeply flawed, and offensive to the millions of adoring Star Wars fans who have waited patiently for a sensible approach to finalize the Skywalker timeline. The fallout has driven the primary SWU development from film to TV.
The Sequel Trilogy started hopelessly with The Force Awakens after a 10-year break from Hayden Christensen’s’ portrayal of emo Vader. J.J. Abrams tried to get back to basics and introduce a new stable of relatable characters with Poe, Finn, and Rey. But his attempt to save the artistically doomed franchise crashes and burns much like the Imperial Starship Spectral that we see Rey scavenging inside. Abrams simply takes the storyboard of A New Hope, shuffles the cards a bit, and makes the same film. Sure there are new twists like FN-2187’s sudden ethical crises that births Finn, Poe’s X-wing pilot who can destroy the planet version of a Death Star without too much trouble, and Rey, who has instant Force powers when the plot needs her to fight off Kylo Ren, an older, mighty, fully trained, not-Sith evil guy. Again after 10-years, it’s all laughable.
Then we come to the lowest point in the franchise. You’d think the low point would be Ambassador Jar Jar, right? Not a chance. We need to go deeper into madness, where we find the once-powerful Luke Skywalker alone on Temple island, living out his days in self-pity. The character that brought us to understand how a Jedi is made now lives in isolation doing stupid, stupid things. Rian Johnson debases Luke to a pathetic sidelined character.
I suppose it is relevant to mention the unseen hand of Kathleen Kennedy, the former get-me-a-coffee secretary who is now President of Lucasfilm in the Disney organization. Probably more than anyone, she is to blame for the Star War film flameout. She yes’d herself through Lucas’s Prequel follies to disastrous effect, then when J.J. Abrams arrived with a plan, she hired Rian Johnson, who actually doesn’t like Star Wars. It would be entertaining to watch a docu-drama about how lots of people ruined Star Wars time and time again.
The Last Jedi was barely a Star Wars film. Sure, it had all the characters, new and old, but there was no point to any of it. We got Force Skype and Snoke? Then for some reason, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber gets destroyed by Kylo and Rey in a some foolish Force tug-o-war, and we learn entire fleets of ships can be destroyed by sacrificing a single ship by Hyperdriving into a Star Destroyer. The script seems like it was written by Madlib. There are many who say Episode VIII is the worst of the worst of Star Wars films; that it’s kind of a F.U. to the entire SWU.
After Rian Johnson decided to spend more time with his family instead of
ruining making more Star Wars films, J.J. was back, baby! Yeah, not so much. The Rise of Skywalker was terrible. The film looked good and some really cool Ahh-Ha moments. Seeing a part of the Death Star just lying on the ground was cool until you realized the thing was the size of a moon, and if it landed on a planet semi-intact, the impact would have been planet-killing. It is stuff like this that is so unnecessary. Dramatic scenes and hard-to-believe visuals can be achieved without this kind of nonsense.
You are nothing. A scavenger girl is no match for the power in me. I am all the Sith!
– Palpatine, probable Sith clone
The entire Exegol and Palpatine have been here all along plot features are crazy! Just crazy. What is the point? Palpatine has been building a new Sith Star Destroyer fleet underground. Underground! The viewer is expected to believe the entire Star Destroyer fleet has been built in a mysterious part of the galaxy that you need a crystal pyramid to navigate to, and it’s built underground and fully crewed by tens of thousands of First Order soldiers? All of that is stupid and totally weird just to force a reckoning with the First Order’s surprise expansion.
At this end, it’s a weary game to play, loving Star Wars. There is SO MUCH potential in the stories and characters that maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the big event films – and maybe that is just what Disney has planned. At their recent Investor Day presentation, an impressive catalog of Star Wars content was released. After the incredible success of The Mandalorian, Disney might have taken the hint to focus on long-form television and put event films aside for a while.
The slate of upcoming TV shows is impressive. We will have season three of The Mandalorian next year, plus a new show, The Book of Boba Fett.
Several full series following the stories of Rangers of the New Republic, Ahsoka, Andor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Lando, The Bad Batch, A Droid Story, and Star Wars: Visions are in production. All TV shows. The next film is planned as Rogue Squadron in 2023, then another after that, which is unnamed today. This is excellent news like never before. If the quality comes anywhere close to The Mandalorian, Star Wars might just well be saved. Maybe there will be the appetite someday to remake the entire Star Wars film series as a TV show, with each season reclaiming a single film. It would play in three acts, with each act having three scenes, which are the series. Nine seasons with a plan. Now, that would be something to behold.
I hope Rogue One’s grittiness (which is my favorite by far of all 11 films) with mainly believable and likable characters, set in, for the most part, realistic situations, permeates into these new TV shows. We need to see the flaws of the characters and the inner-dilemmas they face. Death must be final. Actions need consequences. A lightsaber can’t slice through a TIE Fighter one day, then bounce off a Stormtrooper another day. Lucas didn’t want precise science in his stories. He didn’t want to be constrained by the reality of nature in his storytelling. His vision can be achieved with just a bit more care to the details of things, a nod to the audience’s intelligence.
After 40 years of devotion, it’s time for some creative sanity to take hold and guide the next generation of Star Wars filmmakers. Kind of like unseen energy that courses through everything. Now that would make for a good story.